Part One: Establishing a Base
I crawled out of the pod, my heavy equipment and duffle bag still sitting in the steel compartment. It would be easiest to take everything with me, dragging food and shelter behind me rather than leaving myself open to the elements, but the pod weighed more than a ton. If I couldn’t just roll it down the hill, it would have to remain on the side of the mountain.
To the northwest, I could see the shimmering waters of the swamp. Trees, or at least tree-like plants, grew all over the swamp, coating it with a canopy of green that diluted the shimmer of bioluminescent algae that lived below. Just to the north between me and the swamp, about ten miles away, a giant plume of smoke billowed up to the heavens. It was probably the remains of my ship. Somewhere between here and there, Kyle had probably fallen. With no other landmark chosen between us, it would only make sense that he would go towards the flaming remains of the ship to meet up with me.
I looked up, soot and ash fluttering down, diffracting what was left of the sunlight. The sun was setting in the east and night would soon be falling. If I were to cover significant ground, I would need to get off the mountainside quickly.
I grabbed the flashlight and a small shovel from the pod’s emergency supplies, then dragged out the duffel bag. I would need water soon, but that could wait for a little bit, so I took the filter out and threw it back in the ship. For now, I needed to find a place that my plants would grow, and the rocky side of a mountain wouldn’t do. I folded the shovel and put it in the bag, probably crushing an already well-abused plant. I grabbed a couple bottles of water from the emergency stock in the pod, enough to get me through a few days, and stuffed them into the pockets of my jumpsuit.
I flung the bag over my shoulder and began scrambling down the side of the mountain. Rocks and soil fell down the side, unworn by the feet of man or beast. I met very few animals on my way down, only seeing several of a small, orange animal that eyed me, curious as to what I was. Its eyes poked up on stalks, its feet clinging onto the rock with sticky, gooey adhesive. If I got too close, the orange seemed to change color to brown, the animal frightened and attempting to camouflage itself against the rock to which it clung. I climbed down, ignoring the animal, letting it sit how it wanted.
At long last, my feet hit a grassy knoll. The hills at the foot of the eroding, old mountains were far more easily traversable. By then, though, it was dark enough that I couldn’t see the plume of smoke. I turned on the flashlight, not yet tired and unwilling to give up my search. I knew the direction in which the crash site lay, had oriented myself well. If I had realized that I was going to crash on this planet, I would have studied the stars more and figured out how to better navigate.
The trees here were pretty thickly placed, covering the sky, the grass through which I stomped rather tall. Insects, or more likely small creatures similar to insects, jumped up from the grass as I plowed through. The ground beneath my feet felt moist here, water seeping up and through my shoes. If I could clear the ground of these thick weeds, I could probably dig holes for my plants, but that would be a difficult task. The ground cover, according to our probes, would get less intense a bit closer to the swamp. I’d plant the goods near the crash site of the ship.
I supposed that I’d traveled several miles. My body, still thinking it was in the time zone we’d established on the ship, was finally ready to sleep.
There was nothing on this planet that I thought would try to attack me. I took the shovel from my duffel bag and used it to chop the grass inefficiently, clearing a small spot for me to sleep. I piled the cut grass up, laying the duffel bag on top of it once I’d emptied my plants onto the ground. The soil on their roots would soak up some dew, hopefully helping the plants to stay alive.
Morning broke too soon. I saw the plume of smoke still rising through the tree cover and was thankful for it. I could still make it to my goal.
My plants looked like they had weathered poorly, but that was only to be expected. The night in the open, in the dew, had done them good, but they’d be packed up once more while I traveled. I placed everything back in the duffel bag and walked more, following the smoke.
As I traveled, the grass became shorter and the ground wetter. Moss hung in great swaths from tree branches, and animals made strange, intermittent sounds similar to crickets. I was satisfied that they weren’t the highly complicated, patterned noises of the Osminog, not recognizing any of their languages in the chirps and calls.
Eventually, I saw treetops ripped to pieces, signs that I was getting close. Smells of man-made products burning filled the air, getting stronger the closer I got. I plodded onwards, coming upon the scar the ship had left on the ground, nearby trees burned to ash, the grass pulled up, leaving a swath of cleared land behind the twisted hunks of steel. Water seeped into the scar and pooled up in places, but, most importantly, the ground had already been cleared for planting.
I sat the duffel bag down and took out the shovel, building a mound so that the water would drain down and not drown the rescued plants. I dug tiny holes in the mount for each plant and placed the root system inside, hoping that the wetness of the region wouldn’t too quickly kill them. I hadn’t found a better environment for them yet, at least, and had to do something to save them sooner rather than later. I clipped off the broken stems, planting them as well in hopes that the plants’ totipotency would work to my advantage. The ash had stopped falling, but the acrid smell of burning oil and plastic made my eyes itch. Finally, I scooped the mud up onto the plants and hoped it was good enough.
Kyle wasn’t here yet. I only had a couple more days of water, if I included that which I’d need to hike back for the water filter, leaving me only the rest of the day to wait for Kyle. I decided to leave a note indicating my intent to return in case he didn’t arrive while I waited.
The fire was dying down, very little still remaining that could be burned. Hoping to retain the flame, I used the shovel to whack several branches from nearby trees, dragging them toward the skeletal remains of the ship, letting the fire consume them. They would keep the fire burning and the smoke billowing for Kyle to follow.
I sat on some of the warm, twisted metal that had once been a part of the ship. Soot stained the bottom of my uniform, the orange jumpsuit becoming a soiled black where I sat. I couldn’t let that worry me, though, especially not when I’d found a way to leave a message. I took the soot and wiped as much as I could into my palm, taking it over to the tiny garden next to the empty duffel bag. With my empty hand, I searched through the muck for a rock, eventually finding one of adequate size. It was wide and flat, just broader than my hand. I wiped the mud off of it and let the rock dry before I placed it in the middle of the little garden, obvious to an observer.
I dipped the pointer finger of my right hand in the soot held in my left and wrote, “I’ll be back. Ann.” That was all there was room for, all Kyle would need to know.
I stood, my feet sinking down in the mud and muck beneath. The little mound wouldn’t be good enough to keep my plants alive for long. I’d need to figure out some way to keep my plants alive.
For now, though, I sat back down on the twisted metal and waited for Kyle. He’d come by eventually. Injuries could have slowed him down, especially if he had landed harder than I had. His equipment was also very heavy, so it would take him a while to carry it if he didn’t make multiple trips.
I continued to cut down tree branches and feed my fire, the sweet smell of the burning wood overtaking the unnatural, nasty smell of burning gaskets and synthetic fibers. At least I could appreciate that. After I returned from my search, the steel of the ship would be entirely cooled enough to search through. Somewhere would be an axe head and several knives. Plastic handles would be burned away, but that wouldn’t matter as long as the blades were intact.
The night time fell, my fire still raging. I cut down more branches to keep the fire raging through the night, then finally decided to fall asleep. I couldn’t do anything more, not in the darkness, not with all our electronic equipment destroyed, to find Kyle. Tomorrow, I would travel back to retrieve the water filters, some of the emergency equipment, and chirality changing chemistry set.